How To Demo Your Startup (Part Two)

Jason Calacanis’ just posted part two of his “how to demo a startup” advice to his email list earlier today. Part one with his initial advice is here.

Last week Jason coordinated rehearsal demos at Sequoia Capital for the companies that are launching at TechCrunch50 on September 8-10. He spends a lot of time with each company and gives solid advice for improving the messaging.

The full text of Jason’s email is below. You can request to join the mailing list here.

Last week, I camped out at Sequoia Capital on Sand Hill Road and did rehearsals with most of the 50 companies that are presenting–in fact, launching–new products at the TechCrunch50 event next week. These 50 represent the top 5% of the companies that applied to our demo-style event. Truth be told, the top 150 companies were all qualified to be on stage–if only we could have a five day event with two tracks. :-)

These are the best of the best, and most of them came into “first rehearsal” with a demo that I would rate a seven out of ten. (Yes, I’ve come up with a rating system for these presentations, but that’s another email).

Actor Ashton Kutcher did his rehearsal last week, and I have to say it was kind of ironic to be sitting there giving presenting advice to someone who’s been in, and created, a large number of movies and TV shows. As an actor, Ashton obviously has the ability to draw you in, but presenting a product in this format is a very, very specific skill. He picked it up quickly.

After coaching hundreds of folks over the past two years, I’ve developed 18 solid rules. You can see the first 10 rules over at TechCrunch, which reprinted the previous email with permission here. These extra eight are very detailed and speak to some deeper techniques for capturing people’s attention and transferring your enthusiasm for your product to them.

These eighteen rules are just a framework, and are based on demoing at a conference. However, the rules can apply, to various degrees, to presenting your product to investors, partners and potential employees.

11. Show Don’t Tell
This is the most important rule of demoing right after “get into the product as soon as possible.” Once you’re inside the product demo, you’ve got folks engaged. Next, you have to *keep* them engaged. When you’re speaking about your product, are you saying things like “With Mahalo you can find spam free, well-organized search results with related content”? Or are you saying, “Here is a spam-free search result. Notice how the sections are organized and we have the top most important Fast Facts on the side.”

In many demonstrations over the past week, presenters told me what the product did instead of showing me. Other times, they told me what it did, then told me a second time as they showed me. This is really, really annoying and wasteful. Your script should never sound like this:

–> “With YouTube, you can upload videos, tag them and share them with your friends.”
–> “Here we are uploading a video, tagging it and sharing it with our friends.”
–> “We just uploaded a video, tagged it and we shared it with friends.”

If you have limited time–and that is the case 99% of the time–I suggest just showing the product doing its thing.

If you have unlimited time, perhaps it’s ok to say what you’re going to do or recap what you’ve done. However, many of the features of these products are simple (i.e. tagging, syndication, etc) and it’s wasteful to explain to folks “we can tag your video,” “we’re tagging a video,” then “we’ve tagged a video.”

It’s like kissing a cute girl and saying “I’m going to kiss you,” “I’m kissing you” and “I just kissed you.”

Just kiss the girl, and if you did a good job, you’ll know by looking in her eyes.

(Awwww… youth is wasted on the young!)

12. Use inclusive words, live in the present
When you’re demoing your product, it’s best to use inclusive words like “we” and “our,” as opposed to “you” and “your,” and it’s best to use active words. Let’s look at two short scripts for a mock demo of YouTube, shall we?

Try saying these out loud, and imagine you’re one of the 500 people in the audience.

Script A: “You”
–> “With YouTube, you can upload a video in five different formats.”
–> “Now you can tag your video and you can put it on your blog.”

Script B: “We”
–> “With YouTube, we can upload a video in five different formats.”
–> “Now we can tag our video and we can put it on our blog.”

As you can see, the “we” one feels more like a team effort and it draws the audience in. Now, for extra points, let’s change this from what “we” could do to something more active.

Script C: “We can”
–> “With YouTube, we can upload a video in five different formats.”
–> “Now we can tag our video and we can put it on our blog.”

Script D: “We are”
–> “We’re on, and we’re uploading a video, as you can see–we can do this in five different formats.”
–> “Now we’re tagging the video with “bulldog” and “cute overload,” and finally we’re on posting the video. Bingo! We’re done!”

Active words engage your audience. Inclusive words draw them in. Your job is to engage the audience.

13. One driver, one navigator
The best model for presenting your product is to have one person speaking while another person is demoing the product. There are a number of reasons for this, but the metaphor of a road trip should give you an idea of why. On a road trip, it’s best for one person to take ownership of watching the road while another person screws around with the GPS or maps. As everyone knows, screwing around with the GPS while driving can have disastrous results, and a navigator who tries to drive tends to be really annoying.

Whoever is the best speaker of your pair should speak and the other one should drive. If you’re equally qualified, then flip a coin, but never, ever switch roles in the middle of the presentation. It causes a major disconnect with the audience and you run the unnecessary risk of technical issues. It’s a waste of time, and everyone will think–correctly or not–that the reason you’re doing it is because the two of you are in some ego struggle to get equal face-time.

It’s best for the audience to connect with ONE person and to get into a groove with that one person’s voice. Imagine if David Letterman stopped his monologue half way through and had another comedian take over. Get it? Got it? Good!

Navigator: Your goals are to make sure a) that whatever the speaker is saying is reflected on the screen, b) that the screen is moving crisply and cleanly and c) that if a technical error occurs, you route around it without distracting your speaker.

Speaker: Your job is to a) clearly describe what you’re doing with active, inclusive language and b) engage the audience.

14. How to handle technical issues
If you run into a technical problem, have a couple of anecdotes ready to go. For example, if you were Kevin Rose demoing Digg and the browser crashed, you could stop and tell the story about servers getting shut down by massive traffic and the digg mirrors that are setup by users to solve this problem. Here’s a script of how to handle a technical error:

“While Jason restarts his browser, let me tell you how we help sites handle the ‘Digg effect’ of 10,000 people rushing into their site in 60 seconds.” Then, monitor the driver, who should give a silent thumbs up when you’re ready to go.

Here’s what you should not do: panic and/or start babbling. The worst thing you can do is say: “Oh, ummmm…. our browser crashed. This is a new machine, I swear this wasn’t an issue before. Oh, no, ummm…. we practiced this ten times… uhhh… I can get this to work, really…”

If the machine crashes, take a deep breath and fix the problem while your driver falls into anecdote mode. If your presentation is FUBAR (fracked up beyond repair), than apologize and let folks know you’ll be a back in a moment. Here’s a simple way to say it: “It seems we’ve experienced a little problem. Why don’t we regroup for a few minutes while you guys take a quick break?” Or :”It seems we’ve experienced a little problem. Why don’t we let the next speaker present while we regroup? Thanks for your understanding!”

15. The Setup
The first 30 seconds of your presentation is critical. There are a couple of ways to start your presentation that will work. Which one you select should be based on what’s the most effective at engaging your audience.

–> Method One: Get personal
Many of the best products ever built were done so out of the frustration of their creators. Cisco was built by two professors who were frustrated that their two networks couldn’t connect, so they set out to build hardware to “network networks.” YouTube was created because the founders couldn’t find a way to easily upload and share their videos.

A fantastic way to start your presentation is to share how you came up with the idea. For example, let’s take the fictional example of photo sharing site. I’ve include notes under each line for what the driver would be doing in brackets.

“Last year, I went on vacation in China and took over 1,000 digital photos… like this one of me eating fried bugs!”
[Scroll through five photos of China–including a really goofy one of me eating fried bugs that’s sure to get a laugh!]

“Like everyone, I wanted to share them with my friends, but emailing them was cumbersome.”
[Show Yahoo Mail screenshot, including 17 attachments]

“I couldn’t easily describe or organize the photos in an email message, and I couldn’t host them in their original size, because it crashed my email client. Plus, the recipients would probably have problems downloading them.”
[Show Yahoo Mail giving a timeout error, then switch to a GMAIL email with broken images]

“So, I created Flickr, a free, web-based photo sharing site.”
[Show Flickr Homepage]

–> Method Two: Show the problem
A second effective way to start your presentation is to show the problem first. In the example of surfing the web while on the go, Steve Jobs might say something like this:

Steve Jobs: “You know, when I’m on the run and I want to get some information on the web, I’m left with one of two choices: Open up my laptop and fire up my browser–which takes four minutes…”
[Driver: Shows photo of Steve Jobs at an airport Starbucks balancing a laptop while dragging a roller.]

“… or I can take out my phone or Blackberry, squint and try to fill out forms so I can switch my flight times… but that winds up taking more time than opening my laptop!”
[Driver: Show JetBlue website loading broken on tiny screen, forms not working.]

“That’s why the iPhone has a screen which is 225% larger than a normal phone, has a real browser that works called Safari and still fits in the palm of your hand. It’s not too big, it’s not too small–it’s just right!”
[Driver: Steve effortlessly navigates LAX to JFK flight search on iPhone while in line at Starbucks!]

“Now I just need to order my soy latte!” (huge laugh!)
[Driver: Show Steve Jobs ordering from counter while holding iPhone in his hands.]

–> Method Three: Get right into the product
This method is great for sexy products. If you’ve got something that just looks amazing, you might want to consider just starting. For example, if you’re Kevin Rose showing off one of the Digg visualization tools, you should just throw it on the screen, let folks try and figure out the hotness and then explain what they are looking at.

–> Method Four: The Showman
This is the most dangerous, and advanced, technique in presenting. I don’t recommend it unless you’ve got a killer product, you’re entertaining as hell and you can straight-up drop it.

Greg Clayman, the futurist co-founder of UPOC, shocked everyone with this amazing video:

You’re probably not Greg Clayman, so stick to Methods One to Three for five or ten years, and if your flow is tight, then think about upgrading to number Four. Or, if you’re a risk taker, go for it… just be prepared to fall flat on your face and be ok with it.

16. Horrible ways to start your presentation:
a) Talk about your bio and your business accomplishments. (We don’t care, we can talk about that later if your product is any good.)
b) Talk about the market size. (We don’t care, we can talk about that later if your product is any good.)
c) Give an overview of the competitive landscape. (We don’t care, we can talk about that later if your product is any good.)

17. Describe your product five times
Folks are going to come up with moniker for your service if you don’t, so I suggest challenging yourself to come up with a 10-word description of your product, then a six-word description and finally a three- or four-word description.

The best example of slogans come from the political arena:

“Stay the course”
“The buck stops here”
“Change you can trust”
“No new taxes”
“Ross for Boss”
“It’s the economy, stupid”
“Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

Try and find a slogan for your company and repeat it a couple of times in your presentation:

“human powered search”
“the easiest way to share video online”
“the most powerful photo sharing service ever”
“answers, not search results”

Continuous partial attention is the mode most folks will be in during your presentation. They’re going to give you 60% of their attention while checking their Blackberry, looking around the room and thinking about their own plans to rule the universe. Knowing this, chances are they will only hear your catch phrase once or twice if you say it three times.

That’s why you say it 3-5 times.

18. Change up your style (i.e. shift your tone)
There are many tones you can use in your talk, and it’s best to change them up. One tone, a mono-tone, is the worst. Folks hear you in that tone for more than 60 seconds and they zone out. Something else in their attention bank takes over. Here are some styles:

Excited: “This has never been done!”
Puzzled: “Has this ever been done?”
Low questioning: “Have you ever seen anything like this?”
Excited questioning: “Have you ever seen anything like this!?!”
Cavalier: “I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want Google knowing what i searched for last night!” (wink, wink!)

This is an advanced technique, and it might take years to flow naturally, but it’s worth starting now. One suggestion is to record yourself and pick out the natural transition in your talk and shift tone during them.

If you made it all the way to the bottom you’re one of the more intelligent members of the list–and probably very good looking as well. As such, please considering forwarding this email to the ten most interesting people you know saying “Jason’s a really cool cat, you should subscribe to his list.”

Have any suggestions for topics I should cover? Tweet them with @jasoncalacanis at the start, or email me at

See you all at the conference in San Francisco on September 8-10th. More here: